Edward Wormley Dunbar Furniture in 1952

An Unsung Hero of Modern Design

Playboy magazine featured mid-century modern rock stars
A “Playboy” magazine cover from 1961 featuring modernism’s great designers. Edward Wormley is second from the left.

 

Resurrecting pivotal eras in design is irresistible to vanguards who understand that sometimes the best place to begin looking into the future is to take a glance back in time. The resurgence of the mid-century aesthetic, which defined the quietly sexy fifties and less subdued sixties, is proof that if vision and quality existed there is great material to mine. It’s interesting to me to note how the purity of that period, which resulted in cleaner lines—whether the materials used were experimental or natural—has never lost its appeal for a number of reasons, some of which I don’t believe we can fully explain. Nostalgia, after all, can be a powerful seductress!

 

An Unsung Hero of Modern Design

Edward Wormley, an unsung hero of modern design
Portrait of Edward J. Wormley, mid-century modern designer who created iconic pieces for Dunbar.

 

Many of the names of the design royalty who spearheaded the mid-century movement are well known to us—George Nelson, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Ray and Charles Eames have become synonymous with the genre. But there were others who deserve more attention—take Edward Wormley, for instance. He was an astute modernist I am proud to feature today given I am able to announce a move to expand the awareness about his vision to cement his legacy in the twenty-first century and beyond.

 

Edward Wormley was the other face of Modernism
Edward Wormley, “The Other Face of Modernism.”

 

This push is an exciting collaborative effort between Andy Hiser, who has been keeping the Wormley name alive by manufacturing furniture the designer created for Dunbar, and Currey & Company, who will bring a dynamic new audience to his upholstery by introducing a number of his designs to their extensive network of connoisseurs. With this important launch taking place this week during High Point Market, I thought it would be apropos to explore a bit about Wormley’s entrée into the canon of modernism.

 

Grover Sprunger, president of Dunbar, reads to children
Grover Sprunger, president of Dunbar when the catalog was produced is shown reading to children, setting the tone for the spirit of the playful narrative.

 

A Playful Spirit in Furniture Design

The lens through which I’ll present him is a whimsically designed catalog titled The Dunbar Book of Modern Furniture, which the company published in 1952. It is still available in a first edition, though this volume is quite pricey. Schiffer has since published it in its entirety under the title Dunbar: Fine Furniture of the 1950s as a more affordable alternative. It is an important survey of one of the finest cohesive collections of mid-century modern furniture I’ve seen. This, the fact that there is less available in terms of material on Wormley and his role in establishing this brave new aesthetic during its heyday makes it a fabulous reference book for any substantive design library. It’s also a magical narrative filled with children, pets and even regally postured unicorns interacting with sleekly handsome furniture. The entire presentation reveals a company with a truly playful spirit.

 

Dunbar's Austen chair as a swing
The Austen chair as a impromptu swing entices a little girl to play.

 

Wormley’s relationship with Dunbar began in 1947 when Grover Sprunger, who was heading up the small company at the time, tapped him to be the manufacturer’s exclusive designer. Located in Berne, Indiana, the pioneering company was making a name for itself on par with Herman Miller by producing avant-garde modern furnishings. Rather than exploring new materials as the latter did, Dunbar focused on wood as the primary material for frames and casegoods—the elemental emphasis achieving that Mad Men vibe that exploded in popularity when the show debuted in 2007—much to the chagrin of collectors who have quietly snapped up the period’s most prestigious pieces during the past half century.

Currey and Company introduces the Dunbar Austen Chair
The Austen armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

 

While Herman Miller was teaming up with George Nelson, and Ray and Charles Eames, Dunbar was giving over its entire design vision to Wormley. All of these innovators achieved greatness in design during the critical middle decades of the twentieth-century, leaving the legacy we now know as the debut of modernism in American interiors. Wormley’s repertoire for Dunbar included sofas, chairs and ottomans, tables, cabinets, bar carts, desks, shelves, benches, and bedroom furniture.

 

Dunbar catalog of 1952 showing baby in tear drop chair with Doberman
A baby in the Tear Drop chair curiously observes a Doberman Pinscher several times its size.

 

Andy discovered that Wormley’s oeuvre had survived and was available to be reproduced when he was actively searching for an opportunity to invest in or purchase what he deemed a “lite” domestic manufacturing company with a recognized brand name. This was during the early 2000’s and he made the smart move to acquire the intellectual property of the original Dunbar Furniture Company, which was owned by one of the company’s former presidents at the time.

 

Currey and Company introduces the Dunbar Tear Drop Chair
The Tear Drop slipper chair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

 

“We approached him and made an offer to purchase the name and design archive, which included a large portion of Wormley’s work,” he explained. “Considering he was a contemporary of mid-century modern designers like the Eames, Saarinen, Nelson, Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto, it seemed that Dunbar and Wormley were an integral part of the mid-century modern movement and American design history.”

 

Currey and Company's new Sullivan armchair in the Dunbar Collection
The Sullivan armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

 

Andy feels that now is an opportune time to collaborate with Currey & Company since there is significant market demand for well-designed objects with a scale and aesthetic reminiscent of the period during which Wormley was so prolific. “Some theorize that the interest is a passing trend but I believe rather than a period-specific ‘look’ driving the interest, it is the carefully executed designs, which transcend a specific era,” he adds. “Many of these continue to be sought-after by designers and collectors in the secondary market. Add this to an uptick in reissued designs from large companies like Knoll and Herman Miller, and I believe the sum total is that we are seeing a longer-term, broader interest rather than just another fad.”

 

Currey and Company's new Monroe armchair in the Dunbar Collection
The Monroe armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

 

I couldn’t agree more, and this was precisely what occurred to Currey & Company’s creative director Cecil Adams when he realized Hiser owned the important body of work. “Andy is the supplier for our custom upholstery program at Currey and when I was visiting him in his plant to work on our collection, I noticed a few of the Wormley designs he had in production. They were quite appealing to me on a personal level and I made an effort to learn more about the designs.”

As Currey & Company began to introduce and sell more mid-century-inspired designs in the lighting category, Cecil realized upholstery was a natural segue. “After a few attempts to come up with some modern accent chairs, it became apparent to me that perhaps we should just stick to the originals so I spoke with Andy about it,” he added. “He agreed to share some of the designs with Currey to distribute to our residential clientele. Prior to this introduction the designs have been marketed to the high-end contract and hospitality markets only.”

 

Currey and Company introduces the Dunbar Quinn Chair
The Quinn armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

 

During High Point Market this week, Currey & Company is introducing the Sullivan, Quinn, Monroe, Tear Drop, Austen and Tete-a-Tete upholstery pieces, the inclusion in their collections a brilliant move in my eyes. To understand how remarkable an occurrence this is for avid fans without access to such high-quality pieces previously, I do recommend that you order the Schiffer book. It will help you put these pieces in the context of the Wormley collective. Surrounding these modern classics, the company created a magical world in which the designs became characters in the mid-century narrative. The book includes an illuminating preface by Leslie Piña that presents a history of the Dunbar/Wormley collaboration; a profile of Wormley; playful visuals; and quotes from the literature of A. A. Milne and James Thurber, whose whimsical writing furthered the impish ambience to make this so much more than a furniture catalog.

 

Author A A Milne with his son and Pooh Bear
Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear at Cotchford Farm, their home in Sussex. Photo by Howard Coster, 1926, courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

In case these names seem familiar to you, though you’re not sure why, Milne was the English author who created the character Winnie-the-Pooh and Thurber penned such witty-cum-wisened tales as The Unicorn in the Garden, which is delightfully presented in the video below:

 

 

This snippet of a Milne poem opens the catalog’s narrative:

Nobody…could call me

A fussy man —

BUT

I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!

 

The Mood of the Mid-Century

As children romp in their buttoned-up ensembles so emblematic of that era, the book oozes period authenticity so convincingly that I had a flash of having my bread buttered as a child—a visceral talisman that tricks us into believing a return to a simpler time that really never existed is possible, particularly where domesticity is concerned.

 

Dunbar's Nine Foot sofa featured in period style
The Nine Foot sofa is featured in the Dunbar catalog, a narrative befitting the time it was produced in 1952.

 

Just last week, I inherited a piece of furniture in a mid-century modern design that had stood as a centerpiece in my parent’s living room when I was growing up. It is now in my new home and I can say there is nothing like having a memento of the past to evoke satisfying reminiscences, especially when the quality that was integral to the era is in the object’s very DNA.

 

Dunbar's catalog included whimsey like this unicorn in bed
A regal unicorn poses in an Edward Wormley bed in the Dunbar catalog.

 

Weaving Thurber into the narrative, the catalog’s author opened the chapter titled “The bed is to sleep” with this bit of dialogue from The Unicorn in the Garden: “The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and awakened her. “‘There’s a unicorn in the garden,’ he said. ‘Eating roses.’ Now the moral of our tale differs from Mr. Thurber’s for here the unicorn is in the bed and the bed is in the garden. So there never will be two sides to the question nor a wrong side to the bed. This has a double moral: the bedroom has the illusion of distance to be out of hearing; the bed, the serenity of repose to invite the dream.”

 

American author James Thurber smokes a cigarette
American author James Thurber, congruent with the times, photographed by Fred Palumbo lighting a cigarette.

 

This article invites a dream for me as a long-standing design writer: to able to announce such a groundbreaking new Currey & Company collection, which I will get to celebrate with all the parties involved this week in High Point is one of those occasions that happens to independent journalists a handful of times in a career. I’m beyond honored and I look forward to seeing how Cecil and his team style it all, creating one of their remarkable backdrops in the Currey & Company showroom to highlight the new collection. I can see some of the company’s remarkable mid-century modern lighting included in the vignette. Also, a little birdie told me there will be ample mustard, teal and dark Chinese red hues to complement the furniture, achieved in part by a new Fromental wall paper.

 

Edward Wormley Dunbar Furniture in 1952
The Dunbar catalog contained whimsical vignettes, like this shot of the Round Extension table with a chandelier seeming to dangle from the sky.

 

I think Cecil summed up the gestalt of this turn of events quite well when he told me, “We are very excited to have this opportunity to share these designs with our customers at Currey and bring them something that is not available anywhere else in the marketplace. Wormley is truly one of the great, unsung heroes of modern design. Now all have to do is decide which ones I want to order for myself!” He took the words right from the nib of my pen!

 

Edward Wormley and his modern design featured in Playboy in 1961
Edward Wormley featured with his designs in Playboy.

 

Illustrating how prominently Dunbar was situated on the forefront of the mid-century modern movement as a result of tapping Edward Wormley to be the dedicated designer of their brand of pared-down furniture is the lead image of this post—a 1961 cover of Playboy magazine that featured (from left to right) Nelson, Wormley, Saarinen, Bertoia, Charles Eames, and Jens Risom. That a culturally influential publication of that time so clearly outside the furnishings world would tap him for inclusion with this group of design’s rock stars attests to the appeal of his furniture designs, and I cannot wait to see the new Currey & Company introductions in person.

In closing, I’d just like to say what a brilliant move it is on their part to expand the recognition for this icon of modern design, one I will be capturing and sharing on social media beginning this Friday so stay tuned for the excitement!

The Modern Salonière and An Unsung Hero of Modern Design © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. This is a sponsored post but this fact in no way swayed the opinions contained within it because I would not have chosen to write about these products had their aesthetic attributes not resonated with me.

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